First, the obligatory upfront warning: The Handmaiden contains explicit and prolonged sex scenes, sexual themes, violence and bad language. Those familiar with the extreme cinema of Park Chan-wook (best known for the Lady Vengeance trilogy and more recently Stoker) will have an idea of what to expect, so if you do see this film, proceed with caution, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot (which is very loosely based on Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith), as preserving the surprises is important and the best way to approach it is to know nothing about it. During the 1930s Japanese occupation of Korea, Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) is hired as handmaiden to Japanese heiress Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). Hideko lives in a large mansion with her sinister Uncle Kouzuki (Jin-woong Jo) who is obsessed with books and has an extensive but forbidden library. Occasionally Kouzuki sells one of his rare books, but rather than part with the original, arranges for a forgery to be sold instead, courtesy of master forger Count Fujiwara (Jung-woo Ha).
What happens with these four characters throughout the rest of the film is gripping, shocking, intoxicating stuff with some genuinely brilliant twists and turns. It has the air of an erotic thriller, but with Chan-wook’s uniquely twisted sensibilities (plus a dash of Quentin Tarantino’s narrative jiggery-pokery). At times one is reminded of Daphne Du Maurier (particularly Rebecca), Les Diaboliques, and even the Wachowski’s pre-Matrix neo-noir Bound. Atmosphere oozes from every frame, with Chan-Wook’s nigh-on flawless direction and tremendously committed lead performances resulting in an exceptionally strong piece of filmmaking. Chung-hoon Chung’s immaculate cinematography and the music score by Yeong-wook Jo provide the icing on the cake.
There are two versions of The Handmaiden currently in cinemas. One is a shorter cut which apparently feels more like a “thriller”, the other an extended cut (erroneously called the “Director’s cut”) which contains extra footage, including more of the romantic elements. I saw the latter version. However, both versions contain enough of the afore-mentioned graphic sexual content to raise serious eyebrows. It is ironic that a film which inherently condemns pornography contains so much of what could arguably be called pornography. There are many academic arguments one can read online as to whether or not the various lesbian trysts are too “male gaze”, but quite honestly my own take is somewhat ambivalent. A film that dares to go to the places this one goes to should inevitably contain at least some hot-under-the-collar material. However, I can also see the opposite point of view. Could some of what was in the film be labelled gratuitous? It wouldn’t be hard to make that case.
Either way, The Handmaiden is a superbly crafted film, even if it is likely to be a problematic one for many viewers.